Wednesday, 5 September 2012


 It was announced that the Department of National Defence has been considering the purchase of armed drones. This has raised some questions and concerns in some quarters.

Roland Paris in Postmedia News writes;

“Before Ottawa decides to buy armed drone systems, however, a critical question needs to be debated and resolved: How exactly will Canada use the weapons carried by these drones?

For several years, the United States has employed a growing fleet of armed drones to kill people it deems a threat to the U.S., including in countries where the U.S. is not currently at war, such as Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. The administrations of both George W. Bush and Barack Obama have claimed that such assassinations are legal. These claims are not convincing. Rather, they encourage other countries to acquire drone technology and perhaps eventually to use this technology in their own assassination campaigns.

Canada should have nothing to do with such activities. Before acquiring lethal drones, therefore, the Canadian government should clearly indicate that it will not participate in or facilitate “targeted killing,” either overtly or covertly. Indeed, Ottawa should be doing what previous Canadian governments, regardless of party, have traditionally done very well: leading an international effort to develop new multilateral rules in an area of international concern — in this case, rules to limit the misuse of robotic weapons.”

And in The Chronicle Herald Peter McKenna writes:

“More to the point, if Canada’s program does mimic the American one, and thus involves the assassination of high-value targets or individuals like Gadhafi in distant places, who will give the green light for doing so?

In Washington, it’s pretty clear that President Barack Obama — who has presided over an extraordinary number of lethal UAV missions against supposed terrorists — has the final authority. Would that mean that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would have similar political responsibility here in Canada? Or would the ultimate decision on who and what to target rest in the hands of Canadian generals?

Of course, this raises the thorny question of whether Canada really wants to be in the nasty business of singling out individuals in foreign countries for UAV strikes. It is even conceivable, as happened last year in the case of a U.S. national and suspected al-Qaeda operative who was eliminated in Yemen (there have been others, too), that Canadian citizens could be killed by a PM-approved drone attack.

How far does Canada want to go down this path of targeted assassinations? Under what criteria these would these decisions be made? Who is ensuring accountability and proper monitoring of these decision-makers? And, finally, what are the legal and legislative parameters for conducting UAV military operations abroad?

Until we get answers to some of these questions, the Canadian government should put any suggestion of a new fleet of drones on ice.”

These questions show a fundamental lack of understanding of weapon systems in general and of drones specifically.

 It is true that the U.S. policy of Targeted Assassinations (I’m not really sure what other kind there are) is associated in the public mind with the use of armed drones, but drones are not the problem. There is little that drones do, including killing specific individuals that could not be done by some other kind of weapon.

There is nothing that drones do in Pakistan that could not be done by CF-18’s albeit with a much higher profile more difficult for the Pakistani government to ignore. You seldom see this kind of concern when a new sniper rifle is fielded but in point of fact Targeted Assassinations have in the past been largely the province of Special Forces using weapons like sniper rifles.

While it is true that some weapons lend themselves more readily for technical or psychological reasons to some kind of operations then others it is the use to which weapons are put, not the weapons themselves, which matter.

 It is the apparently unmanned nature of drones that gives them their sinister reputation. The reality is that a drone, tasked and piloted by a human controller, is under more positive control then an artillery shell programmed and launched at an unseen target by Army personal.

Drones, including armed drones, are part of the new face of Air Power. To the extent that Canada needs Air Power to realize its domestic and foreign policy objectives then Canada needs the appropriate drones. There is always a danger that weapons will drive policy instead of policy dictating weapons but there is no reason to believe that drones are any more likely to cause this dilemma then any other weapons system. 

(For a more detailed view check out  What's Not Wrong WithDrones? The wildly overblown case against remote-controlled war. “ Written by Rosa Brooks in the September 5, 2012 issue of “Foreign Policy, The global magazine of politics, economics, and ideas”)